Who Has Unconscious Bias?

The short answer to that question is: all of us. Bias is normal for humans, and there’s no way to eliminate it; it’s part of being human. There are, by the way, both positive and negative biases (we are biased toward the kinds of people who most resemble you or share your beliefs, while people who don’t fit into our ideas of “normal” often engender negative biases). Anyway, I’m not here to write a book about bias (go here for more info). I just want to make it clear that there’s no way to get around having unconscious biases, because all of us can’t be aware of everything that’s influencing us or we’d be bombarded by thoughts. Our unconscious biases are part of what led humans to succeed (being biased against funny-looking strangers probably saved a lot of past people).

The tattoo bias is one that comes up a lot in these trainings. Image by  @noralynepo58 via Twenty20.

Why I’m thinking about this today is that I have been helping out with a diversity and inclusion initiative at my job. One of the things I said I’d do was evaluate some potential training courses on unconscious (or implicit) bias. There’s nothing this old instructional designer likes better than evaluating online training, so I was happy to do so.

I went through two different courses. In one of them, the presenter repeated so many times that unconscious bias is normal that I’m pretty sure THAT is seared into my unconscious. But I see why they did that: you don’t want people feeling guilty or that they’re a bad person for having them. That first course reminded me that I’ve been reading a lot about unconscious bias in the books about race in the US, so I was feeling all good about myself. The course encouraged me to write down biases that might pop up into my head while I was learning, and sure enough a big ole list started growing.

The second training was more scientific than the first, and I enjoyed that. It also had some exercises in identifying bias that I really enjoyed. Sure enough, I have a bias toward males in certain roles (science rather than art). And I totally messed up another exercise that proved the same thing. These results make a good point, that many of us retain biases that aren’t even in our own self-interest, thanks to cultural traditions, media depictions, etc.

Am I Biased?

Heck yeah, I’m biased. Some of them I’m more conscious of than others, because, like the trainings pointed out, by introspection and careful observation, you CAN see some of your biases and make an effort to mitigate them in the workplace (and beyond). Also, by actually exposing yourself to members of groups you have an unconscious bias toward, you can start to see each person as an individual, rather than a group member. I’m eternally grateful for linguistics classes and factory jobs for exposing me to people outside my in-group and letting me see them for themselves.

Here are a few biases I’ve made an effort to work through, and how I think I got them:

  • People with tattoos (blame my mom)
  • Muslim men (blame a long string of horny married men in college/grad school)
  • Black people (blame growing up in the South in the 60s)
  • Fraternity members (blame college)
  • Smokers (also blame my late mother, who died of lung cancer)

I’m not saying I’ve eliminated my biases, but I know they are there, and now I can make a conscious effort to treat people as people. I’ve benefited from this a lot. Now the bias is just a twinge, which I acknowledge and move on really quickly.

How many irrational Suna negative biases are in this photo? A bunch. Will they affect my hiring practices? Nope. Image by @zelmabrezinska via Twenty20.

Now, other biases I wrote down I have a harder time with. As I wrote them down, I could readily see that some of these are really silly. I also can see where some of the biases are based on bad experiences, formed in self defense, and related to safety (like the Muslim men one, which required many years of meeting Muslim guys who did not try to proposition or assault me or my friends). Here are some silly ones that I need to work on. I have biases against people:

  • With strong body odor
  • With dirty hair
  • With tongue piercings
  • With poor dental hygiene
  • From New York (rudeness)
  • From California (constant bragging)

Who speak or write with poor grammar in formal/business settings (as opposed to cultural identity things like Tex Mex or Black English, which don’t bother me, or informal slang)

Mom also said that wearing curlers in public was trashy. How 60s.

A lot of these look to me like things my mother would have said denote “low class,” and I got it drilled into me that no matter what I did, I was not to appear like “white trash” (Mom’s words). This verifies that biases against “out” groups from your childhood are hard to get rid of, even in the face of experiences that prove them wrong. The New York and California things are based on personal experiences, and I know perfectly well they are stereotypes. They are just very sticky to me. Do you have any like that?

Biases That Protect

A couple of the biases I wrote down are pretty obviously based on protecting myself from negative consequences (real or imagined). For example, I am biased against narcissists, and that’s based on how I’ve seen friends treated and how hard these people are to eliminate once they attach themselves to you. Now, narcissists can’t help being who they are, since it’s a mental illness. And I need to not treat them differently in the workplace, but I’ll avoid them in personal relationships as much as I can, to protect me. Do you avoid people with certain personality types?

Here’s a negative bias I plan to work very hard to get rid of. I hope this goes both ways. We’re all citizens of the same country and want the best for our families.

While I’m being honest, I’ll admit to being biased against people who display giant Trump flags on their property or pick-up trucks. In my mind, I see them as the radical types who actually believe I have an agenda to take away their rights or force them to have an abortion. That’s probably not true of most of them. But, thanks to the media and reading comments on social media, this one is stuck within me. Note, however, that I am perfectly capable of working with, finding commonalities with, and even living with people who voted differently from me. How about you?

While waiting to give birth to my first child, I edited this book. I removed the word “basically” about 897 times. I did get a Society for Technical Communication award for it.

The final self-protection bias is one I am working really, really hard to get rid of, but it’s sort of funny. You see, I once worked for the great Stephen Wolfram, who is a certified genius with a heart of gold, but at least as a younger man was hard to work for. There was an incredible amount of berating, cursing, odd demands, and eccentricities to negotiate (I could write a book, but I won’t; we both have fond memories of each other…now). The thing is, he had a particular English accent based on where he was born and educated. Coincidentally, one of my coworkers at Planview has the exact same accent, being from the same area. So, every time this other person talks, I hear Wolfram. Everything that person says sounds like a criticism or a put-down (it doesn’t help that sometimes it IS that), but I have to make a huge effort to separate the two of them. My Wolfram PTSD is not doing me any favors!

I wrote this. It was very funny at the time. From Stephen’s website.

I wonder how many of us deal with biases like that? I’d love to hear some stories.

In any case, there’s no doubt in my mind that my biases that popped into my head are just scratching the surface and that there are many more hiding down deep in the recesses of my subconscious, helping me make judgments quickly, but not necessarily fairly. Acknowledging them is a good start, as long as it’s followed by making the effort to eliminate them in important business activities like hiring, reviewing, and such. I’m on it.

PS: I just ran across an article that provides some great ways to open up conversations with people toward whom you may have negative biases. Check it out!

That Sneaky Mass Media

Lately “the media” gets a lot of flak for trying to push its subversive agenda onto all of us innocent consumers of information. I have no argument with those claims, but I don’t necessarily see it as bad. I know that the television I watched, the books I read, and the magazines I looked at affected how I perceive the culture I grew up in.

I was convinced that “normal” people were thin, white people with a couple of children who drank sophisticated cocktails. The norm for women was to be thin, blonde, blue-eyed and with the rare combination of flat stomach and large breasts. Normal men had lots of hair, but could have a little weight on them, because that made them look successful. I thought all this, because that’s what I saw in the media (not in real life).

One of the reasons I’m SO glad that the women’s movement, Black Lives Matter and organizations acknowledging that people come in different sizes, abilities, and shapes have been becoming louder and louder. And that mass media, with its agenda-promoting engine, has been helping lately. It’s an uphill battle to make our ads, shows, and print material look like “us,” but it’s happening.

First Example: Fashion

I have been reading InStyle magazine since it came out, and I have always been fond of its editorial direction. It’s one of the first fashion magazines I’ve read that have had a real pro-woman focus. They have a series of “bad-ass women” that features a huge range of women, not all of whom are celebrities. It makes me feel so good to see the occasional wrinkled face and the many skin tones in the photos.

There’s a nice range of sizes, colors, ethnicities, etc.!
Could this woman be more beautiful? WOW.

The most recent issue is one you should pick up. The beauty issue blew me away. So many races, hair types, sizes, and even ages were features, all of whom are represented as models of beauty. THIS is how you change cultural norms. If they keep telling us that people with African, Asian, Indian, and other heritages are beautiful, even people with old ideas will gradually change. I really think this is true.

Every page I turned presented different ideas of beauty. Yes, there were pale, skinny people. But there were also so many others in the mix. That’s what I want to see, all the ways in which we can be beautiful. And yes, there are beautiful trans women in there, too.

Second Example: Texas Parks and Wildlife

I have a soft spot for these folks, since I’ve been involved in so many of their really great programs over the years. But this month’s Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine warmed my heart. The letter from the editor talked about how they will be depicting lots and lots of different types of Texans going forward (they did have a lot of white guys before).

Happy fishing family.

It’s not something you really notice until there’s a change, and then you just have to smile. There was a happy Hispanic man catching a redfish, a black family on a fishing pier, and even a man hunting from a wheelchair (must be a cool wheelchair!).

Happy hunter.

This is really important for them to do, because we note a lack of diversity in our Master Naturalist program, and the TPWD has written about the perception among some that certain groups just don’t “do” camping, fishing, hiking, and hunting. If we see more and more photos of all kinds of people engaged in outdoor activities, maybe people in all groups will feel more welcome to get out there and have some fun.

Don’t we ALL deserve some outdoor fun, relaxation, and exercise?

Third Example: HGTV

I’ve probably said this before, but I’ll say it again. I am really loyal to HGTV, because they started featuring diverse families on their home shows long before other networks did that kind of thing. And they never presented them as, “Oooh, look, these are GAY people!” No, they presented them as bickering couples, interesting personalities, and folks who just want to buy or fix up a house.

HGTV's Newest Hosts Are An Adorable Married Gay Couple
Their gay hosts focus on houses, not being gay.
Creating Accessible Homes | HGTV
Oh look, he happens to use a wheelchair. Nice h ouse!

And they do the same with people with disabilities. They’ll talk about the importance of finding or remodeling a home to make it comfortable for the residents, but they treat them respectfully and focus on the whole family.

By showing diverse groups, they make the wide variety of people in the US and Canada into a feature, but a normal feature, not something to crow about. That’s what I want, for all of us to be “normal,” no matter what.

So there, the media and its subversive message of inclusion has made me darned happy.

Who Are Your “Friends,” I Wonder?

I probably mean who are MY friends. I’m not talking about my inner circle of friends and family, which is a small number, like with most people. I mean the larger group of folks I care about, respect, and am interested in hearing from.

Obviously I’m weird. Who coordinates their accessories this much? Also I was hot.

Thanks to my career on the internet, I know and have gotten pretty close to lots of people from a wide range of backgrounds. We all have something in common that ties us together, but we’re all different, too. I honestly like that, even though I also like being around my “tribe” as well, which is very human.

Most of the people I know are great about respecting the rights of others to express themselves, even when they are TOTALLY WRONG (i.e., on the other side of an issue). A few aren’t. I’m okay with that, unless I get accused of thinking or believing something I don’t think or believe.

I got my feelings hurt pretty badly when I shared the recent news article about people who,as a group, aren’t big on following rules sinking their compatriots’ boats by going too fast in a parade. I thought it was a funny example of logical consequences. (I am having trouble linking to an article, so just Google “Lake Travis boat parade” and it will come up.

Someone took offense to my posting it, even though I didn’t comment, and said: “Pretty sad that you take pleasure in this. I’ll bet you wish some of these people had drowned.”

Wow. That’s the kind of thing that hurts a lot. Did they really believe that? Knowing I’m a pacifist, nonviolent, Buddhist-leaning tree-hugger?

Poor stereotypical me in my stereotypical shirt.

So yeah, I said that was mean. But I didn’t delete this person’s comments, since they have a right to insult me and lump me into some hypothetical evil group of people. On the other hand, I didn’t delete any subsequent comments, some of which agreed and some that didn’t. Everyone gets a say.

Im not surprised someone treated me like that. I’m learning that people who speak out, in today’s climate, will get bashed. Others have it lots worse, so I’m grateful for the kindness of people I know. Maybe that’s what matters more to me than beliefs, kindness.

I just hope the bashers (ha ha autocorrect hat it as badgers) stick to words! Dialog or one-sided rants are fine. But I’m against hurting others or their businesses because you disagree on things. I want to hear all sides, even when it’s hard. But I’m not super. I have to deal with my own knee-jerk reactions. Don’t we all?

What I Discovered

After all this, I checked my Facebook friends list. I was relieved to see quite a few people I care about who disagree politically or socially. This is GOOD. I don’t want to isolate myself in my comfort zone!

I want to share what I wrote on Facebook, mainly as a record for myself, but also to try to say how much I care for all my friends and family. Please don’t think I’m a horrible stereotype!


My Post. It’s Long.

I just culled my friends list. I saw a beautiful parade of faces from all over the world, in every color. From teens to my elders, there they were. Some I hear from often, some haven’t posted in years. I just like seeing their precious faces. Who did I cull? A couple of leftover fake people, people who have passed from this life (cause I get sad at their birthdays), and a lot of animals who long ago passed over the Rainbow Bridge.

Who did I keep? A large group of very diverse people I truly care about. Family, old friends, new friends, locals, people in other hemispheres, people from the whole spiritual spectrum (Yes, including Christians, Jews, Muslim, Buddhists, Wiccan, agnostics, and atheists). Straight, gay, trans, questioning, bi, gender fluid—they’re all good to me. There are people across the range of political and social groups, too (that’s right, from MAGA to Antifa to Communist to pacifists to gun rights activists to Capitalist to Socialist to fans of dictators to fans of the US Constitution (many interpretations) to people who just don’t care).

I’ve kept people who are vocal about their beliefs. I’ve kept people I agree with. I will keep people I disagree with. I’ve kept people who don’t post controversial things and people who do. Why? Because we all get to express ourselves however WE see fit.

I’m human!

We have the option to scroll by things that bother us or to react. Then we deal with the consequences. When I screw up, I can count on others to point it out. I am not going to censor friends I agree with or disagree with. I’m not going to invite people I disagree with to leave. Nope. We all get to stay.

Sometimes my humor upsets people. I hate that! But I’ll keep trying. If I hurt your feelings, tell me. I’ll do the same, though. Thanks to all of my diverse friends for sticking with me in these troubled times. I treasure YOU.


Take care friends. The US is in a bad place and it will get worse the rest of the year, I’m afraid. Do your best not to pigeonhole your friends, acquaintances, and family. Try?